Golf is not a game which changes at a great pace. Things tend to be done a certain way because that is the way in which they have tended to be done all the way back to the days of Old Tom Morris. However, the 2016 Ryder Cup, to be held at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Minnesota, marks a considerable change in the game across a number of issues.
This year’s iteration of the famous old tournament is notable for a number of first timers on and off of the course; not only are there a large number of rookies taking part in their first Ryder Cup but the tournament will also see an extensive increase in the rights and access given to corporate partners. Golf is moving into a new era in a sporting and corporate sense.
Sponsorship has long played a vital role in professional golf, with relationships such as FedEx and the US PGA season-ending Playoffs providing a recent example of how these partnerships can benefit and elevate both the sponsor and the event itself.
The Ryder Cup, however, is not just any event and its attitude to sponsors has been slower to develop than many of the other tournaments in golf. While the US PGA has been particularly effective in finding suitable partners for its flagship events, the Ryder Cup has not embraced corporate partners in the same manner. Big names such as Standard Life Investments (global partner to the competition), BMW, Rolex (both Team Europe), Mercedes-Benz, and Omega (both Team USA) have been involved but the access available to them has remained relatively limited.
2016’s tournament, however, has seen the US PGA embark on an ambitious extension of its sponsorship packages for the tournament, aimed at increasing the Ryder Cup’s impact on the general sporting landscape.
On-course signage has been limited in previous years but this is one of the many aspects organisers aim to change for this weekend, with increased advertising space available, as well as a broader range of merchandise on offer and a new broadcast strategy. This tournament will also be the first year partners will be permitted to use the event’s logo in their advertising.
With only Standard Life Investments signed as a global partner to the tournament, organisers see this extension as an opportunity to increase that number and help to grow the Ryder Cup’s impact as a whole worldwide.
While the increased funding and attention which a larger sponsorship pool will bring to the Ryder Cup will help achieve the goal of an increased global impact, it is, as ever, the on course product which will have the largest influence.
Those sponsors who have come on board, or those who have increased their involvement, for this weekend’s tournament have done so at a great time for the game.
No fewer than eight players will be making their Ryder Cup debuts at Hazeltine, with players such as Jordan Speith and Patrick Reed only featuring for the second time. Remarkably, six of this year’s rookies come from the European team, with Rafa Carbrera Bello, Matt Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood, Danny Willett, Andy Sullivan and Thomas Pieters all appearing at the historic event for the first time, as well as Team USA’s Brooks Koepka and Ryan Moore.
On top of these eight rookies, there are as many as 12 changes in personnel across the two teams, meaning this year’s tournament has a distinctly different feel to it than that which took place in Gleneagles in 2014.
There are a large number of names on both teams which may be unfamiliar to casual fans and even some of those who they may know, such as Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson, have this season emerged as greatly different characters than we had previously seen.
We still have the old hands, the names which we have become accustomed to seeing at this famous old tournament; Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood for Europe, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kucher and Zach Johnson for Team USA.
We also have those players who made the first move in the post-Tiger era, those who we mistakenly thought would carve up the next ten or fifteen years of Major Championships up between them; Rory McIlroy for Europe and Jordan Speith for America.
Excitingly, all four winners of this year’s Major tournaments will be present across the two teams; Masters winner Danny Willett and British Open champion Henrik Stenson will line out for Europe while Dustin Johnson, who won the US Open and PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker will represent America.
Though all four men have featured prominently at the business end of golf’s biggest tournaments in recent years, their wins marked each of their first Major triumphs, bringing the total of first time Major winners since 2010 to 13. It also marked the second year in that time period where all four Majors were won by first timers. All of this provides us with further evidence of the level playing field we find in golf at the moment.
The hierarchy in golf used to be such a simple place; it was Tiger’s world and the we were all merely living in it. However, that cosy and comfortable reality has been shattered in the years since 2009. All of sudden, after the king’s abdication, we had a scramble for the throne. The narrative demanded a hierarchy be put in place, so we rushed to proclaim ‘Rory’s Era’, followed by ‘Jordan’s Era’ and, more recently, the ‘Big Three Era’, which then swelled to four and even possibly five players, depending on who you listened to.
However, the sheer number of first time Major winners in recent years merely underlines that we are in a new, less predictable era for golf. Players such as Rory McIlory, Jordan Speith and Rickie Fowler, to name only three, help highlight that the face of the game is changing and evolving. No one golfer is standing head and shoulders above his competition. Instead, what we see is a game in a constant state of flux, where any number of players can shine on a given week. The product being sold is no longer only one player as it was in the past, but the game itself and that prospect must be very exciting for current and potential corporate partners alike.
As for this weekend, the Ryder Cup is a competition which offers plenty of opportunities for players to become heroes. For one week every two years, golf becomes a team sport and the players are competing for more than just themselves. More than any other tournament, the Ryder Cup cries out for an emerging star, an unlikely hero who makes the weekend his own. With 8 rookies, as well as 13 men across the two teams yet to win a Major, this year’s Ryder Cup has the potential to be career changing for a lot of people. It all comes down to who can step up to the mark.
All of this adds up to create a new and exciting feel around the tournament and the game as a whole, a feeling that is being replicated by golf’s governing body’s changing attitudes to sponsorship and corporate partnerships.
With those in charge of the game seemingly willing to keep pace with the changing nature of golf on course by re-evaluating their relationship with sponsors, is this the beginning of sponsorship activations in golf on a par (pardon the pun) with that which we see in sports such as soccer and rugby?
Photo Credit: RyderCup.com, Erik S Lesser/EPA